Why Your Family Name Did Not Come From a Mistake at Ellis Island

iStock
iStock

When my great-grandfather Yuroslav Hieronymous O’Kagan vaan de Schulevitzberg arrived at Ellis Island in 1909 he didn’t speak much English. He was 17 and hoping to make his fortune quickly and bring the rest of his family over from the old country. He knew he would be asked a number of questions at arrival about his occupation, his health status, his living arrangements, etc., and he was prepared. As he approached the immigration officer, the first American he had ever met, the answers tumbled out in a nervous jumble, “Work factory! No coff-coff! Tooths very good! Go to Chicago! Buy house! Big house!”

The officer shook his head, laughed, and asked, “Name?”

Thinking the officer was mocking his presumptuous housing plan, he replied, “OK. OK … rent.” And that’s how we became the Okrent family.

This story is not true. Most stories of this kind are not true. Because, as Philip Sutton of the New York Public Library explains, the inspectors at Ellis Island “did not create records of immigration; rather they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship’s passenger list, or manifest.” No names were changed at Ellis Island, because no names were taken at Ellis Island.

It is also highly unlikely that such comically inept communication would have ever taken place at Ellis Island. According to this article at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Ellis Island immigrant inspectors all “spoke an average of three languages. They were assigned to inspect immigrant groups based on the languages they spoke. If the inspector could not communicate, Ellis Island employed a full-time army of interpreters and would call in temporary interpreters under contract to translate for immigrants speaking the most obscure tongues.”

So how did Jensen become Johnson, Koenigsberger become Kingsley, Mlodzianowski become Murphy, and so on? In some cases, names were entered incorrectly on the passenger list when travelers bought their tickets abroad. For example, a Portuguese named Teixeira, leaving from a French port, might have been entered as Techera. These types of mistakes were in fact sometimes corrected by Ellis Island inspectors (by lightly marking corrections, at the request of the passenger, above the name written in the manifest).

In other cases, immigrants were given alternate names by neighbors, bosses, co-workers, or teachers who couldn’t pronounce the originals. Those alternate names were then adopted by the immigrants when they submitted their applications for naturalization. Though the idea for the new name might have come from someone else, the name did not become official unless the immigrant chose to make it official when becoming a citizen.

The name you used when you applied for your naturalization papers did not have to match the manifest at Ellis Island. Names were adjusted, sometimes slightly, in order to fit new surroundings, and sometimes drastically, in order to fit new identities. My name, which was Okręt in the old country, was changed to Okrent to get as close as possible to the intended pronunciation (the ę is a nasalized e in Polish). Official name changes did not come about through haphazard errors, but because immigrants deliberately chose them. Chalk it up to the urge to assimilate, the drive for self-reinvention, or the excitement of using a freedom they hadn’t had before, but don’t blame it on the hardworking, multilingual clerks at Ellis Island.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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